Have a mint julep in honor of Derby Day

The suburbs are a long way from Louisville, Kentucky, but you can get a taste of the Kentucky Derby at local bars - or at home - with the classic mint julep.

It's a mix of bourbon, sugar, water, ice and fresh mint. And while the mint julep will never be in the winner's circle in terms of drink popularity, it's a Derby Day tradition - and Saturday is no exception.

At the Derby itself, mint juleps will be available as soon as the gates open at 8 a.m. While racing and festivities take place all day at the Derby, “the most exciting two minutes in sports” happens at 5:34 p.m. NBC will be airing coverage from 3 to 6:30 p.m.

At Arlington International Racecourse, bartenders will be serving classic mint juleps in commemorative glasses for $12 as part of their Derby Day festivities, which also include live music, a hat contest, games, trivia, and a variety of food and drink packages. Gates open at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, with the first post at 1:15 p.m.

El Tapeo in Oak Brook is tinkering with the traditional formula to create an apricot mint julep, a mix of Four Roses single-barrel bourbon, honey simple syrup, apricot liqueur and muddled mint that the restaurant will be serving for $13 all weekend.

El Tapeo in Oak Brook will serve its own variation on the mint julep this weekend. The apricot mint julep is made with Four Roses single-barrel bourbon, honey simple syrup, apricot liqueur and muddled mint. Courtesy of El Tapeo

“Apricot liqueur adds a different taste to the bourbon,” El Tapeo manager Gary Waldukat said. “It cuts through the taste so a non-bourbon drinker will have a bit more enjoyment.”

The garden julep, which El Tapeo will be serving only on Saturday, goes further afield using WhistlePig rye instead of bourbon and an ice sphere made with simple syrup, mint and basil, which Waldukat said changes the flavor of the drink as it melts.

There are many stories surrounding the origin of the mint julep and how it became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. Some say Churchill Downs builder Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. grew mint on the racetrack's grounds to use in the drink, which he enjoyed so much he served it to the visiting Polish actress Helena Modjeska.

“The julep's been with us for some time,” said Chris Goodlett, curator of collections for the Kentucky Derby Museum. “If you go back to newspaper articles in the 1880s in relation to racing in Kentucky, you'll have references to mint juleps.”

Another story says it was female horse-racing enthusiasts who made the mint julep popular at the Derby.

“Women preferred the taste of the julep to just drinking straight whiskey in the summer,” said Jackie Zykan, master bourbon specialist for Old Forester. “Mint is very refreshing and sugar is delicious in any form. This was a woman-based cocktail revolution.”

The history of the cocktail, however, starts long before the founding of the race in 1875. Zykan traces its origins to the rose water syrup used in the Indian dessert gulab jamun. The floral sweetener helped to flavor bad water, and the trend spread to the Mediterranean, where mint was used in place of flowers. The drink was sweetened with sugar and made a jump to the American South, where early versions were likely crafted with rum or brandy.

Some attribute the modern incarnation to Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay.

“He spent a lot of time in D.C. as a senator and introduced this mint julep concoction made with bourbon to the bartender at the Round Robin,” Zykan said. “It became associated with high society.”

Much like fancy hats, the mint julep has faded in general popularity but is still extremely common at the Kentucky Derby. It even has its own cup, meant to be held from the bottom or top rim so the drink stays cold.

Zykan spent five years working as a bartender in Louisville and said she made what felt like 1,000 mint juleps a day for drinkers who wanted a taste of that tradition.

“Derby season is absolutely brutal to any and all Louisville bartenders,” she said. “It's not a drink that locals order ever. It's a labor-intensive cocktail.”

Zykan said you can make the cocktail with vodka or gin. Other variations include a strawberry julep with strawberry syrup or a blueberry lavender with blueberry syrup and lavender bitters. You can also ditch the simple syrup entirely for the coconut mango julep, which is sweetened with coconut liqueur and mango smoothie mix.

“You can use sage, you can use basil, you can use any herb in place of the mint or in addition to,” Zykan said. “If you want to have a Derby party at home, you can have a bar of herbs and different sweeteners and make your own juleps.”

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